An ISS (International Space Station) resupply mission, which lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, has suffered a launch failure. The Progress MS-04 mission, which was being carried by a Soyuz-U rocket, successfully lifted off from Baikonur at 1452 GMT on 1 December.

The launch of the Progress MS-04 mission. Courtesy of Roscosmos.

The launch of the Progress MS-04 mission. Courtesy of Roscosmos.

 

A total loss of the mission was declared after a third stage engine fault caused an evident premature separation of the third-stage and spacecraft . All telemetry was lost 382 seconds after the initial firing of the third-stage RD-0110 engine had begun. The Progress MS-04 spacecraft separated 140 seconds early and its antennas and thrusters were deployed (how the spacecraft initially separated from a thrusting stage remains a mystery). Without a command to shut the engine down, the still thrusting stage apparently collided twice with the separated spacecraft – once at the rear and once at the side – sending it into a tumble with possible damage to the communications antennas. The engine is produced by Voronezh Chemical Automatics Design Bureau (KBKhA).

Update on 12 Jan 2017: It is now thought that foreign particles in the RD-0110 engine in oxidizer pump caused the failure.

The Soyuz MS-04 was not travelling at orbital speed at separation. It re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Tuva Region of southern Siberia and although most of the craft burnt up, some debris crashed in the Russian Republic. Explosions were reportedly heard in the region. This area borders Mongolia and is outside the usual drop-zone of a used third stage on this mission profile. There were fears that the craft would land in Chinese territory.

The cargo craft was carrying 2,442 kg of supplies of which 710 kg was fuel, intended for the primary Zvezda module, to be used for station-keeping purposes. For the time being the ISS has enough reserves of consumables for there not to be a worry – assuming other replenishment flights go successfully.  The mission was also insured for RUB2.5 billion (US$39 million) on both Russian and International Markets.

This was planned to be the penultimate launch of the Soyuz-U vehicle, and there are now doubts about whether the last Soyuz-U will fly.

Comment by David Todd:  While Soyuz FG launch vehicles have an exemplary record – possibly due to the fact that they are man rated and used mainly for manned missions – other rockets in the Soyuz/Molniya/R7 family do not. For example, the Soyuz U/U2 type subset (in which the above launch resides) has not yet achieved the “Nirvana” state of a long run of zero failures. Instead, its failure rate is low and steady – but does not improve. And it never will, given that the Soyuz U is close to being retired and the Soyuz U2 is already retired.

 

The Soyuz U and U2 flight experience - a steady low but never improving failure rate. Source: Seradata SpaceTrak database

The Soyuz U and U2 flight experience – a steady low but never improving failure rate. Source: Seradata SpaceTrak database